Two schools, two cultures in collision

Rape case pushes Duke into introspection

April 09, 2006|By JEFF BARKER | JEFF BARKER,SUN REPORTER

DURHAM, N.C. -- One of the first phone calls that Duke University's president made after learning about an alleged rape by members of the men's lacrosse team was to the chancellor of North Carolina Central University, on the other side of town.

President Richard Brodhead, a 19th-century American literature expert in just his second year at the school, was feeling his way in a budding crisis. He hoped to head off racial tensions by reaching out to the historically black public university, where the alleged rape victim - a 27-year-old stripper and mother of two - is a student.

But more than that, Brodhead was beginning an examination of strains in Duke's relationship with the world beyond its lush campus, where tulips bloom near the neo-Gothic chapel and students study under tall, waving pines.

This period of introspection, which is to include formal reviews of the lacrosse team's "culture" and the administration's response to the sexual assault allegations, is proving sobering, even painful.

The university, proud of its reputation for producing scholar-athletes in more than name only, has had to confront the fact that some of its players - nine of whom are from Maryland - are hardly likely to become national role models.

In Durham, a transitioning former tobacco and textile hub of 210,000, in which blacks and whites are each about half the population, the scandal has exposed that while Duke has made strides from the years when it was nicknamed "The Plantation," it is less than a perfect neighbor.

Durham City Council member Eugene A. Brown said there had long been signals, if Duke cared to look, that lacrosse team members' behavior had crossed a line.

"There is an arrogance and an entitlement. They see themselves as cool cats and our neighborhood as their sandbox," Brown said in an interview Friday. Players, he said, have become known for noisy disturbances and for urinating on residents' property.

The university doesn't dispute published reports that nearly a third of the 47 lacrosse players have been charged with minor offenses in the past few years, most related to alcohol or rowdiness.

Brown, a real estate broker, lives in the Trinity Park neighborhood bordering Duke's campus, an area in which the university has been buying classic old homes rented by students and hoping to lease them to responsible tenants, such as faculty members. Brown's home is 1 1/2 blocks from the "lacrosse house," where three team captains lived and where a woman said she was raped at a party in the early hours of March 14.

One of the captains told authorities he used an alias to hire the woman, along with another exotic dancer, to perform at the party, according to court records. The woman told police she was pulled into a bathroom and raped by three men for 30 minutes, breaking four red-polished fingernails as she clawed at a suspect's arm.

Medical records and interviews "revealed the victim had signs, symptoms and injuries consistent with being raped and sexually assaulted," said a search warrant application unsealed recently. Police have also looked into reports that racial slurs were shouted.

Nine days after the party, players canceled a meeting at which they were going to answer investigators' questions, according to police. Meanwhile, Duke students and area residents staged rallies demanding justice for the alleged victim.

No charges have been filed, and authorities continue to investigate. They are also awaiting players' DNA test results.

Duke announced last week that it was canceling the team's season, including a game that had been scheduled yesterday against the Johns Hopkins University, after the disclosure that a lacrosse team member had sent an e-mail after the party saying he wanted to bring in exotic dancers, kill them and cut their skin off.

In the past three weeks, Duke has been caught between asserting the legal rights of team members - who have proclaimed their innocence through attorneys and a statement from the university - while assuring Durham and North Carolina Central officials that it is taking the matter seriously and not coddling players.

The balancing act hasn't been easy.

In Durham, where officials are fond of praising the city's conversion to a high-tech and medical-industry economy, "I think the sense of the community is they want some answers probably faster than is happening now," said Mayor William V. Bell, a former IBM engineer.

Demographics

That is also the sense among many students at North Carolina Central, a 10-minute drive from Duke. The campus, a blend of Georgian-style and modern brick buildings, is crisscrossed by busy streets and feels more attached to Durham than does Duke, whose pine trees and green spaces provide a buffer from the city.

North Carolina Central is more rooted to the area demographically. Eighty-nine percent of its students are from the state and pay $8,152 a year for tuition, fees and housing, according to U.S. News and World Report.

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